Tasmania’s rugged mountains and empty, windswept beaches appeal to the wild within us. As tourism expands into previously undeveloped areas, many are starting to worry about its consequences – is the environment playing second fiddle to profit and growth? Tom Wolff spoke with a couple of people in the industry to find out more.
Words and Photography by Tom Wolff
“Tasmanian Aborigines are the Traditional Owners of lutruwita (Tasmania), and have been here since the beginning of time. We remember and honour our Elders past, present, and those to come.” – Rocky Sainty
“Our Old People knew every environmental niche and every landmark in Country. They knew the laws that governed life, which were passed on through spoken stories, in song and dance and by way of places made or marked in the landscape…Thus the TWWHA is of global significance for all humanity. It holds the secrets of dynamic, culturally diverse and spiritually rich peoples whose cultural and spiritual footprints can be found deep inside limestone caves or visible as ancient pathways, hunting corridors, stone quarries, ceremonial places and in the many coastal and inland campsites.” – Aunty Patsy Cameron
The above words from Aunty Patsy Cameron and Rocky Sainty are drawn from the foreword of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) Management Plan. Most recently updated in 2016, the plan lays out in significant detail the values and strategies for protecting one of last tracts of true wilderness* left on the planet. The TWWHA was listed in 1982 and accounts for around a quarter of Tasmania’s land mass. As I so often told clients when I worked as a wilderness guide, the Tassie Wilderness satisfies seven of the possible ten (both cultural and natural) criteria for World Heritage listing. The only other site in the world to satisfy seven is Mt Taishan in China.
“Do we need to see these places in person for us to know they’re worth protecting?”
The World Heritage listing has surely had an influence on the increased tourism in Tasmania over the past twenty years or so. People travel far and wide to visit places that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) considers to be of global importance.
But all this travel and increased visitor numbers come at a cost. That cost is almost always suffered by the environments and ecosystems that the listing was set up to protect in the first place. Do we need to see these places in person for us to know they’re worth protecting? Or is it enough to simply trust their importance in our world?
In terms of tourism in Tassie’s wild places, it is this quandary – involving discussion of protection, conservation, accessibility and development – which I want to investigate.
To understand the politics relating to the TWWHA and the protection versus development debate in Tasmania, it is first crucial to know that for the last few decades, there has been a historically entrenched conflict between two groups. To simplify it a little, we have the environmentalists (“greenies, tree huggers” etc) on one side and the industries of logging and mining firmly in the other camp. Of course, lines were at times blurred, because humans aren’t that simple, but you get the gist.
In the 1980s, this ongoing conflict came to the fore in a globally significant event: the fight for the Franklin River. A recent article in Urth Magazine by Chris Gooley spoke of the power of photography in protecting one of the last wild rivers in Australia. The photo in question was Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River by the wonderful photographer Peter Dombrovkis. This very photo became front and centre for one of the largest environmental campaigns in Australia’s history, spawning the iconic “No Dams” symbol and instigating the birth of the first political “Green” party in the world. The reason I believe the photo was so influential is because it allowed Australians a window to a place they’d never seen or been to. You can almost feel the mist settling on your skin as you admire the shafts of light poking through. One of Bob Hawke’s election promises in 1983 was to save the Franklin River – maybe this photo had a large part in helping him to make that promise.
One of the main arguments for increased wilderness tourism is that it allows people to experience wild places first hand and in turn value their continued conservation. That being said, the “No Dams” Franklin campaign illustrated an idea that environmentalists had long been making; that people will protect something they have never seen first-hand as long as they are made aware of its intrinsic value to our world. The vast majority of people who protested in Hobart and across Australia had never been to the Franklin River. They had never stood on its banks and watched the murky, tepid waters rush by. It was a unique example of people power – Australians stood up and took action for the Franklin in numbers rarely seen before.
Ultimately the campaign to save the Franklin highlighted conservation value and secured protection for Tassie’s internationally significant ecosystems and environments. The listing remained unscathed until the Abbott government attempted to de-list the World Heritage site in 2014 for increased logging activity – the first time a developed nation has ever attempted such an action. Luckily for all of us, UNESCO rejected the submission and the World Heritage listing was upheld.
Conservation in 2020 – What’s Changed?
Fast forward to 2020 and the debate has shifted significantly. The logging and mining industries are no longer the breadwinners for the state – tourism has shifted into first place. Tourism sounds better than logging and mining, right? Well the answer isn’t so simple. I spent a few years earning my living in the Tasmanian tourism industry and working in some of Tassie’s wild places as a wilderness guide – I still miss it some days. The beauty of the central plateau in all its different moods; a midday dip in the tepid waters of Lake St Clair; the camaraderie of a group in horrible weather; the cups of tea atop Mt Ossa.
But recently, the exponential expansion of the tourism industry into Tassie’s wild places has become concerning for many. I decided to speak to a few people who work in the tourism industry – people who know these landscapes like the back of their hand – to ask the question: how much is too much?
“With this love for wilderness comes a responsibility to care for it that nobody asks us to have.”
Wilderness guides in Tasmania have an unparalleled insight when it comes to matters of tourism and development in wilderness areas. They spend vast swathes of time there and are an integral part of the tourism industry – with many relying on it for their financial wellbeing. As experienced guide Nick Davis explains to me, guides are a diverse bunch that come from all walks of life;
“There is a lot of background in environmental science, policy, law, finance, education, architecture and social policy – we are essentially people from the community, who’ve gone and spent a while out bush carrying round backpacks and chatting about flowers!”
Adrien Butler is the President of the newly formed Tasmanian Wilderness Guides Association (TWGA) and has been working as a guide for about a decade. According to Adrien, the TWGA was set up so that guides could “come together to have legitimacy” and to have a genuine influence on the future of Tasmania’s development in wilderness areas: “we feel like we have a lot of knowledge and value to offer”. Nick – who’s the TWGA Vice-President, adds to this idea:
“The TWGA probably sits somewhere between a body for outdoor guides in Tasmania and a community group run by Tassie guides. It’s designed to give us a collective voice on matters of the environment and the industry…Our industry is intrinsically linked to the environment, and in particular National Parks and Reserves…we think our voice represents that link.”
Adrien highlights the fact that all parties don’t have to agree all the time, but that working together should involve a process that is fair and collaborative. Hours and days clocked up working in the bush lead to a deep understanding of these wild areas, and that means that guides have a unique insight into how the ecosystems function and what human impact in these areas actually looks like. He says, “with this love for wilderness comes a responsibility to care for it that nobody asks us to have.”
I quiz Adrien on what worries her most about the current environmental and political climate in Tasmania when it comes to National Parks and Reserves. She has three main concerns. Firstly, she worries about the motivations of the current liberal government, noting that it sometimes feels like “our environment is a mere pawn in a bid to grow the economy”.
Next, that tourism companies are bending to the will of the market by “providing experiences that have every comfort of a resort”. Adrien believes these luxuries can affect guides’ ability to connect people with the natural world – a sentiment I can relate to from personal experience. I have seen the difference in a client’s experience between cosying next to a gas heater in their private hut with a glass of wine and weathering a storm from the ‘comfort’ of a sleeping bag. The southwest of Tasmania produces wild weather and experiences in these environments without the protection of four walls help us to realise the power of things beyond our control – experiencing first hand that we are a part of the natural world, not above it.
Adrien’s final concern is for the guiding industry in which she has been a part of for ten years. She’s worried that guides are being shaped into a profession that focuses “less on our skills to connect and educate people in nature” and more towards making people feel as comfortable as possible in environments where the very nature of being uncomfortable is “a place where growth and resilience can be experienced” by her clients. When I was working as a guide, our main form of communication between each other became notebooks that remained under the beds in the guide room. I remember the comment of a fellow guide, which illustrates this point quite poetically. It read, “jeez I love bad weather. It’s the only time I actually feel like a guide and not just a servant preparing breakfast, lunch & dinner.”
Access & Development: How Do We Strike a Balance?
I’ve interviewed dozens of people for various publications and spoken to possibly hundreds more about the future of tourism in Tasmania. The argument that emerges most frequently when discussing Tassie’s wild places can be boiled down to a fairly simple ideological conflict. That is, protection & conservation vs access & development. Discussion of this conflict is a little more complex, but I’ll try and explain it using the example of Hall’s Island which is located on Lake Malbena.
There is a proposal to set up a standing camp on the island by which guests will arrive by seaplane. This proposal requires significant development to provide the access. I would argue, as do many others, that this level of development significantly compromises its protection and conservation values under the TWWHA Management Plan. The fly-in fly-out “eco-tourism” development model not only uses unnecessary fossil fuels, but also results in noise disturbance both to public users of the area and local wildlife, who may suffer unforeseen consequences.
“We are now ignoring wilderness values to provide luxury experiences.”
That’s just my take on the debate, so I put the idea to Nick and Adrien to see what their thoughts were on the matter. Nick reckons it’s all about balance. “We should be aiming for increased access” but asks “are we really achieving access if its heavily stratified by wealth?” Nick stresses that it’s about maintaining the integrity of equal access to these places, not just extending the access only to people with money. Adrien argues that the government and private tourism industry have taken the proviso of providing access to the extreme. “We are now ignoring wilderness values to provide luxury experiences – the more embellished the experience, the higher the cost to our wilderness ecosystems.”
A proposal by Tas Parks for a new viewing shelter at Dove Lake is also considered controversial, due to its size and construction in an extremely sensitive habitat. The environmental footprint of a building that large, in a wilderness area, is questionable – another case of how much is too much?
“It’s a hard argument to articulate” begins Adrien, “as a guide I want the industry and profession to grow…but I don’t think that means we need more buildings in the World Heritage Area”. She suggests Tasmania could set an example for the world by setting up a “sustainable and conservation focused” tourism industry.
Nick also indicates the situation is a little more complex than my accessibility vs development suggestion. He says, “if we do decide to compromise wilderness, or to allow private enterprise into National Parks – what is the trade off? National Parks surely exist firstly to protect and rehabilitate nature and secondly for people’s wellbeing…If we compromise and allow private enterprise to develop then the environment should see the remuneration”
Allow me to expand a little on Nick’s idea of the environment seeing the remuneration. What he means is that some of the money generated from tourism developments in wilderness zones must be committed to further protection of wild places. This already happens to some extent. If you were to walk the Overland Track with a private company, part of your payment would be going to Tas Parks via their quota system. But questions remain. Where does this money end up? Is it sufficient to cover the impact on these fragile ecosystems? Could this money be better spent?
When it comes to protecting Tasmania’s wild places, much of the hard work has already been done thanks to Aboriginal people that have cared for this place for millennia, and thousands of conservationists and guides over many decades. Now we have a responsibility to respect all that hard work – to work with them to conserve these areas for future generations.
It is possible for tourism to provide the economic stimulus while simultaneously upholding high levels of protection. But this can only happen if the tourism industry as a whole puts protection before profit. Tourism operations in national parks require careful discussion, with a multitude of voices being heard – voices like that of the newly formed TWGA and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. Money talks, but if we only give the floor to interests that are chasing the dollars, then I fear the environment will cop the brunt of this profit-driven model. As Adrien and Nick tell us, any future developments in these areas must be carefully considered; they must put the protection of the environment at the forefront. Anything less and the compromise is just too great.
Some Things You Can Do
If recent world events are anything to go by, there’s no time for action like the present. Here’s a list of a few things YOU can do at home, to ensure the future of Tasmania’s wild places aren’t compromised by unviable private developments.
1. Read the article by Bert Spinks about his experiences at Lake Malbena
2. Donate to Environmental Defenders Office in Hobart
3. Buy Keep Tassie Wild products – 50% of profits go to Tasmanian environmental organisations (Plus they look rad as!).
4. Check out the Tasmanian National Parks Association – an independent voice for Tasmania’s National Parks – and grab a membership if you wanna support them or donate to continue the good work they do in monitoring and advocating for these areas.
5. Do your research into tourism companies before selecting your adventure. Call them and ask the difficult questions – you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s just marketing mumbo-jumbo or if the organisation has a real concern for the environments in which they operate.
6. And lastly, keep those politicians on their toes! Email your local member of parliament if there’s something that concerns you about the environment where you live. The more voices there are, the more chance we all have of being heard.
*The notion of ‘wilderness’ is problematic for some Tasmanian Aboriginal people and conceptually alien to their understanding of Country. Wilderness management has previously attempted to differentiate between the measurable impact of post-European society and an essentially universal imprint on the landscape from long occupation by Aboriginal people. Some Aboriginal people view management of the TWWHA for wilderness values as a denial of their rights to access Country and conduct cultural practices, as wilderness, in their view, implies an empty land, both historically and in the present day. It is important to note that there are diverse views on this issue held among Tasmanian Aboriginal people. (Excerpt from the TWWHA Management Plan, 2016).